St James’, Benwell

Revd Catherine Pickford, rector of the parish we are linked with in Newcastle, wrote this article which appeared in the Church Times on 27th June 2014. Do remember to pray for Catherine and the people of Benwell!

Holy Spirit,
mighty word of God
inhabit our darkness
brood over our abyss
and speak to our chaos;
that we may breathe with your life
and share your creation
in the power of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Janet Morley

The congregation of St James Church Benwell, in Newcastle’s inner city is good with chaos.  In the 1990s when the Benwell riots hit the national headlines, the congregation responded by quietly planting a community project, in the heart of the most dangerous area.  The project remains and has slowly, over the years, helped the community to stabilise and flourish.  When I arrived as Rector six years ago, I was alarmed by the state of St James’ building.   The roof was damaged beyond repair and the plaster fell off in lumps.  The congregation recognised that, having spent so long attending to the pressing needs of the community, they now needed to move their building higher up the priority list, but they were not afraid. They know God is there in their damp, dark church just as much as he is present in Westminster Abbey.

Janet Morley’s prayer reminds me of St James’ congregation.  Morley asks the Spirit to ‘inhabit our darkness, brood over our abyss, and speak to our chaos that we may breathe with your life’.    Those words ‘inhabit’ and ‘brood’ give a sense of staying, which is exactly what local parish churches do.   Through all the changes and chaos and mess of the years, local churches across the country have stayed, have inhabited, and have breathed life into deprived communities.

The Message Bible translates John 1:14 as

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighbourhood.

It’s an interpretation that, as an inner city parish priest, I find very helpful.  God is not out there somewhere, waiting for us to become a bit less messy, chaotic and impoverished, he is with us in the midst of it all, living next door in the house with the broken windows.

And if this is a prayer for parish churches which support communities through difficult times, it is also a prayer for the times in our own lives when we feel darkness pressing in on us.  It is often when we are suffering that we feel the most alone.  This prayer asks the spirit to inhabit our darkness and our chaos, there in the midst of it, when we feel at our worst.  And more than that,   there is a crucial sense in Morley’s prayer of God using all that is in us, including the darkness, and the chaos, that we may breathe with the Spirit’s life.   God does not only use us when we feel as though we are doing a good job.  He is also at work in our lives when we are at our wits end and feel we have nothing left to give.

The congregation at St James’ don’t have it easy.  The core is small and the fringe is poor, transient, and needy, yet, they are good with chaos.    They know that chaos is part of their parish, part of themselves, and because they inhabit it and are not afraid of it, they breathe into their community with the Spirit’s life and share her creation.



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